Friday, August 9, 2019

Mark Bergin, Author of Apprehension

It’s a treat to have Mark Bergin on the blog today.

Mark graduated from Boston University with a degree in journalism, then worked four years as a newspaper reporter, winning the Virginia Press Association Award for general news reporting. Joining the Alexandria VA Police Department seemed the next logical choice, in 1986. Twice named Police Officer of the Year for narcotics and robbery investigations, he rose to the rank of Lieutenant. His debut novel, Apprehension, draws on many of those experiences.

Mark lives in Alexandria and Kitty Hawk, North Carolina (Bi-i-i-ig fucking house) with his wife Ruth, an attorney and former public defender. They have two children. Write him at or follow his blog at

One Bite at a Time: Mark, thanks for stopping by for a chat. It’s a pleasure to have you here and I hope we can expose some readers to your new book. It’s titled Apprehension, and it drops this month from Inkshares. Tease us a little.

Mark Bergin: It’s the story of the four best and worst days of Detective
John Kelly’s life. He is prepping for a major trial of a pedophile father to protect his child victim, but the defense attorney is Kelly’s lover. She has an unexpected way to win the case but it will hurt Kelly. She also has a personal secret that will change their future. Kelly also has a secret, a terrible thing he did after his niece was murdered, and it’s about to be revealed. He may lose his career and go to jail. And he can’t stop it. But maybe his friends can.

OBAAT: The word “apprehension” can be taken more than one way. For our purposes here the two possible meanings that come to mind are “anticipation of adversity or misfortune” or “the act of arresting; seizure” come to mind. Was this ambiguousness in the title intentional?

MB: Absolutely. I’ve called it Apprehension since I began thinking about it. I actually started making notes for it thirty years ago. Police work is good and bad, terribly stressful and grinding, but fun as hell when you get going. The theme of the book is stress and police suicide, but the goal of law enforcement is stopping bad guys. So I get a double out of the title. I want folks to take it both ways. The follow-up novel is called “St. Michael’s Day,” maybe easier to grasp.

OBAAT: Not that I’m arguing your bona fides, but what’s your background in law enforcement?

MB: I joined the Alexandria, Virginia Police Department in 1986 after four years as a newspaper reporter in Virginia and in suburban Philadelphia, PA, where I grew up. I’d always liked cops and police work, but didn’t care for the cops at home. In the 60s and 70s, it seemed like you had to be a former MP who hated black people and took bribes to be a city cop. I hate to admit that, my own myopia, but it wasn’t till I got to Alexandria and began closely reporting on cops and detectives, riding along or sitting in trials with them, that I realized they were normal, decent, intelligent people. I thought I was, too, so I applied and got hired.

I spent 28 years on, as a patrol officer, street-level narcotics “jump-out,” field training officer, sergeant, and lieutenant. Twenty-seven years on the street, then I got command of the Records Section, and temporary command of Public Information. Desk jobs, heavy on administrative paperwork and computer entry. Where I had two heart attacks, died, actually, and had to retire. The desk jobs did it. But that gave me the chance to start writing, go back to the notes I’d made 30 years ago, that had a beginning and an end and some middle stuff, but that I hadn’t touched since then. Five years later, here we are.

OBAAT: As a career law enforcement officer you must be a tough audience for procedural writers. Who do you read, or do you stay away from the genre altogether, as I know many folks close to a profession tend to.

MB: Don Winslow is very good, very popular and gets it right. I like Bruce Coffin in Maine, and Brenda Buchanan, also in Maine, writes accurately about newspaper reporting. Some kind of Maine thing going, there. Michael Connelly writes cops, lawyers and reporters well and, since my wife is a lawyer I know he knows. Archer Meyer is an unappreciated police proceduralist, I enjoy his plots and he gets details right. Another strong police proceduralist is this guy Dana King – dead on in describing how cops think and work, and the details and humanity of small town Pennsylvania where I was bread and buttered. Penns River isn’t my hometown but I’ve sure spent a lot of time there. The god of this police procedural biz has to be Joseph Wambaugh, and I’ve read everything he wrote. When I knew I had to retire and I decided I wanted to write, I reread certain books by my favorite authors to stir up the creative brain. Alistair MacLean, Elmore Leonard, Adam Hall, John D. McDonald, George V. Higgins. I deliberately avoided rereading Wambaugh, because I knew my book would be similar to his and didn’t want to copy him. Alistair MacLean I’d copy till the cows come home. David Swinson, a former DC detective, has become a master of police noir, bad but redeemable cops who try to do good. Craig Johnson and C. J. Box are Western writers who make it seem effortless and clean, especially now that I’ve learned now just how hard it is to put the words down in the right order.

OBAAT: How much of your experience is in Apprehension? Not to say John Kelly stands in for you, but either direct or indirect experiences that affected the book.

MB: It’s all real but it may not be all true. I tried to write a book that my fellow officers could read and say, he got it right. That they could give to their families and say, this is how it is. I certainly took my experiences of how cops think and react to craft scenes and events. “Wart Lip” is a true story. The shotgun suicide happened. And we did have a witch doctor in Alexandria. The magnets are made up but we thought about using them. Most of the rest could have happened. I know the stress is real, and grinding and feels inescapable, so I’m giving half my book profits to programs that combat police suicide. Might be only seventy-five or eighty dollars. We’ll see.

OBAAT: Who are your greatest influences as a writer?

MB: George V. Higgins, who wrote The Friends of Eddie Coyle, is definitely my muse. He could write whole chapters of his crime stories in dialogue, and only in the last paragraph insert whatever it is that moved the plot along. Elmore Leonard puts folks in normal places but sets off explosions around them. James Lee Burke puts naked souls on the page and they bleed on you. Alistair MacLean is my favorite writer, and his The Secret Ways is my favorite book, but I don’t write adventure. Yet.

OBAAT: We ran into each other a while back at a James Ellroy event. Ellroy doesn’t provide the most flattering depictions of cops. What’s the appeal to you, or do you like him in spite of how he writes law enforcement?

MB: I’ve carried around an original copy of his first book, Brown’s Requiem since it was published in 1981. Only just reread it prepping for that event. His hero is another flawed, former cop like Swinson’s. But the clarity of voice, the constant, subtle but strong emotional tone of challenge and despair, the picture of 80s Los Angeles, stayed with me all that time. I didn’t remember the details but I always felt the impact. Ellroy was gracious and signed it, though he was there to plug his newest. He wrote, “Did this move you?” What a great, laser beam question. Yes. In this and later books he clobbers cops, and I take that as the literary tool he needs to tell the story. C. J. Box always includes inept or evil cops in his Joe Pickett novels. I asked him why, and whether he had bad experiences with police. He paused a sec, like he was trying to come up with the right answer, then said, “It’s just for dramatic tension.” Okay.

OBAAT: What are you working on now?

MB: “St. Michael’s Day.” It is another novel about police, but it’s also about faith. What if you survived a horrendous, nearly fatal machine gun attack, and the people around you decided you were blessed, protected, specifically saved and empowered by God? And what if you weren’t sure you believed in a God who did that, but tried to reckon out your feelings while investigating a case and looking for your own shooters? I have been thinking of this one, and themes of faith, almost as long as Apprehension. Apprehension started as an examination of what it was like to be a squad of white cops who arrested mostly black people, because that’s the reality of 1980s drug enforcement in big cities. It was for me, I was there, lived and worked it and wondered, was it racist or the real and unavoidable result of racial and economic splits in society? Those elements are still part of Apprehension but fell back in the examination of stress and suicide. I tried to use writing the book to come to grips with my own concerns. The next one, “St. Michael’s Day,” is my attempt to understand my own faith, or lack of strong and clear faith. It won’t be preachy. I put faithful and faithless Christians, Jews, Sikhs, Hindi, Muslims and atheists in a pot and turn the heat on. I won’t kill a cop in my books, that’s too easy a literary device, and too painful to write, though I do shoot one in book three. I hate serial killer books, but one just showed up in “St. Michael’s Day.” Popped up on the page. Funny how that happens.

(Editor’s Note: I hope you enjoyed this, as Mark will; be back. There’s lots more I have to talk with him about.)

Friday, August 2, 2019

July's Books and Movies

This month’s best reads:

The New Centurions, Joseph Wambaugh. His first, and the book that deservedly put him on the map. A little dated in spots, but much of that is because it so heavily influenced so many books that came after it. Wambaugh’s writing style loosened up as he continued but the power of some of these scenes is shown by how well I remembered many of them as I got into them after not having read the book in well over forty years.

The Dain Curse, Dashiell Hammett. Probably the weakest of Hammett’s novels, mostly because the plot is so outrageous it makes L.A. Confidential and Murder on the Orient Express look like Dr. Seuss. This could be because it first appeared as a serial in Black Mask and Hammett may have written himself into a corner. The writing, though. Crisp, clean, not a word wasted and not a word misplaced. It’s a master class in how to tell a story even if the story is a bit much.

The movies I saw in July:

Cop Land (1997) A friend mentioned this on Facebook one day and I found myself at loose ends that night and figured what the hell. Incredible cast includes Sylvester Stallone (don’t laugh, he’s very good in this), Robert DeNiro, Harvey Keitel, Ray Liotta, Janeana Garafolo, Robert Patrick, Annabella Sciorro, Edie Falco, and Michael Rapaport. (Get over it, kids. I’m okay with Rapaport.) Stallone plays the sheriff in a small New Jersey town where the mob has set up corrupt cops with sweetheart deals and houses and who knows what all so the cops let the hoods run the precinct. It’s a classic story of the well-meaning but overmatched boob forced to take too much who settles things himself, but it’s well played and paced and filmed. Reminded me of a 70s movie, and you know how I feel about my 70s movies.

Appaloosa (2008) I don’t watch this one as much as LA Confidential, but as much as any Western. Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen bring Robert B. Parker’s traveling lawmen Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch to life with Jeremy irons as a properly greasy “rancher” who has plans other than ranching. The only thing I don’t like about this film is that they expect us to believe a man like Virgil Cole would lose his head over Renee Zellweger, who’s as pinched-face and unpleasant as ever. Classic Western done in revisionist style and well worth watching more than once. Bonus points if you can spot Lance Henriksen without knowing in advance which part he has.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) One of my small handful of comfort food movies. I wanted to relax and smile and this was exactly the ticket. I remember seeing this in the theater with my parents, thirteen years old, and feeling them both tighten up as Katherine Ross started taking off her clothes.

Major League (1989) Not as good a baseball movie as Bull Durham but still eminently watchable more than once. It still amazes me that the Cleveland Indians let them use the team name and logo.

Apollo 11 (2019) Wonderful documentary cut from NASA video and audio recorded during the moon flight, meticulously synched. NASA had cameras everywhere, including in stages of rockets. Crafted seamlessly into HD this is a loving and gripping travelogue of mankind’s greatest accomplishment, though when it was over my first thought was, “It’s all been downhill from here.”

Hombre (1967) One of the small handful of greatest Westerns ever, and deserving to be listed among the best films, period. Paul Newman plays John Russell, a white man kidnapped by the Apaches as a child who came to prefer living as an Apache. The supporting cast of Richard Boone, Frederic March, Martin Balsam, Diane Cilento, Barbara Rush, and Frank Silvero (who steals every scene he’s in) does a wonderful job with what might be Elmore Leonard’s best story and much of his best dialog. I’ve seen Hombre probably ten times now and if there’s a weakness I haven’t found it.

Blade Runner: Final Cut (????) I have no idea which version number this would be of Ridley Scott’s sci-fi noir masterpiece but he should have stopped messing with it at least one version sooner. It had been a while since I saw Blade Runner, was inspired to take another look on the passing of Rutger Hauer, and wasn’t as careful as I should have been when picking from the Amazon list of Blade Runners. At some point creative artists who release their work to the public should understand the public has a certain proprietary interest and limit how much they fuck with it. A bitter disappointment, the slower pacing allowing several holes in the story to stand out. Close to the most disappointing movie I’ve ever seen, though that crown remains solidly in the camp of Blade Runner 2049, a movie I’d encourage Denis Villeneuve to fuck with.

Rules of Engagement (2000) Solid military courtroom drama worthy of mention in the same breath as A Few Good Men. William Friedkin directs the usual outstanding performances from Tommy Lee Jones and Samuel L. Jackson as two best friends from the Vietnam War who reunite when Jackson faces court-martialed for ordering his Marines to open fire on a crowd of supposedly unarmed protesters outside the embassy in Yemen. Guy Pearce plays the prosecutor and Ben Kingsley the ambassador, with Bruce Greenwood his usual slimy self as the National Security Advisor. First rate all the way.